Fragile. Please Handle With Care.
It's not often the fixture list is kind to me, but when I saw that Aston Villa away on Boxing Day I was quite chuffed. I have a lot of family a hop, a skip and a jump away from Villa Park so it gave me every excuse I needed to see my big sister and disguise my visit in the congenial shroud of seasonal good will. I am quite aware that this makes me a bad person, I dare say my family realise it as well. Fortunately for me, they appear to accept it. So I was left with the rare pleasure of getting a cab to an away match and being home inside an hour of the final whistle.
The match started with the home support resplendant with anticipation, sensing a chance to put some comfortable distance between themselves and their visitors in the race for the final Chmapions League slot. The home side obviously had the same taste in their mouth and they were scenting blood from the start. With Djourou injured in the warm up and the frightening prospect of the terrifyingly slow Silvestre up against the electric Ashley Young. With Fabregas and Adebayor on the sidelines, Villa felt they would never get a better chance to consign their visitors to the ignomnity of the UEFA Cup. As little as six minutes had passed when Villa would have Arsenal rattled via the appendage of the crossbar. Barry's inswinging corner was met with a firm header by Arsenal trainee Steve Sidwell and against the woodwork with Almunia glued to the spot like a spare prick at a lesbian wedding. It wouldn't be the first time that the captain would be less than commanding. Two minutes later, Barry swung a delicious right wing cross which Curtis Davies headed wide when he really ought to have scored. Almunia once again failed to command his area, with Arsenal all at sea, we needed a Seaman.
That said, Villa overcommitted at times and looked vulnerable to the counter attack, which could have paid greater dividends but for our decidely ponderous breakaways. Diaby lost the ball in the centre of the park, but roared back to dispossess Sidwell and clip a ball into the path of the busy van Persie, he took it down with the class you come to expect but as he was setting his infra red vision for goal, Curtis Davies robbed him with an excellent tackle. It was Arsenal's first sighter of goal. Villa would once again pin the Gunners back as the visiting support serenaded their hosts with a derogatory ode to Channel 5. Barry's corner was once again met with indifference by Almunia, Gallas cleared but not very convincingly and Luke Young's right footed volley deflected wickedly off Silvestre and Almunia tipped over. The home side pressed further with Toure looking nervous, Silvestre slow in mind and legs and Nasri not doing a brilliant job of helping the aged at left back. Young slid a low ball into the path of Agbonlahor, who had drifted to the left, he beat Toure before firing a low shot at Almunia, which he unwisely beat outwards rather than sidewards and only an heroic block from William Gallas prevented Steve Sidwell converting a tap in. Some head scratching refereeing followed, Ashley Young accidentally caught Sagna with a high boot. It was a largely innocuous and accidental challenge but I'm struggling to recall what Adebayor was cautioned twice for last week? Can someone remind me? The F.A. have to help referees out here and tell everyobdy what the rules actually are, last Sunday raising studs in anyway, shape or form meant a yellow card, this week it didn't. The F.A. could insulate their officials from a great deal of grief by publicly articulating the directives they give to referees.
The Villains continued to menacingly lay siege on the Arsenal goal. Ashley Young swung in another teasing cross to the backpost which Nasri did not track,leaving Milner to courageously hunt the ball down and slide it onto the post. The woodwork would again prove to be an able ally when Curtis Davies hooked the ball onto the crossbar. At this point, the woodwork might as well have been wearing a yellow ribbon. Two minutes later, disbelief would turn to out and out surreality. A move broke down on the edge of the Villa box, but Denilson snuffed the ball out again from Reo Coker's possession, leaving him through on goaland the young Brazilian, probably Arsenal's best player on the night, slid the ball under Friedel into the net. 'We've only had one shot' came the mocking reply from the away support in the far corner. Having been statuesque on his line for much of the half, Almunia made a very unwise decision (again) to try and claim a Reo Coker cross which Agbonlahor beat him to, the ball seemed to be creeping over the line until Bacary Sagna's outstandingly timed bicycle kick cleared the ball from the goal line. I was sat directly inline with the goal line in the upper tier and from that excellent vantage point I thought it was one of the greatest goalline clearances I had ever seen. The replays have given me little recourse to correct my initial impressions. The Gunners somehow trudged off at half time in the ascendancy. 2008 has seen Arsenal on the end of some awful luck, it felt as though the year's dying throws were pointing towards a more prosperous 2009.
Threeminutes into the second half, lady luck was positively mooning at the Holte End. Though there was little serendipity in the manner of the goal. Diaby brilliantly nutmegged Davies on the left hand side with a deft Cruyff turn and released Eboue on the right. Eboue surged forwards as Diaby did in kind, van Persie's crafty run took away half the Villa defence and Eboue released the marauding Diaby who clipped the ball over Friedel. 'We've only had two shots,' was the predictable riposte. Villa Park was stunned into silence, with only our enclosure filling the crisp night air. 'It's so quiet, Villa Park' and 'Champions League you're having a laugh' were the favourites, but the last laugh was to be with the visitors. Diaby, now fully in the mood, swivelled his hips and elongated his elastic limbs to break into the Villa area, Ramsey squared the ball to van Persie who thumped his shot against the post. And we thought the woodwork at the North End was on our team.
But as the Gunners looked to be winning at a canter save for a brilliant last ditch Sagna challenge on Young and Villa were accepting that luck was against them, predictable defensive frailties cameintoplay. The livewire Milner played another ball to Agbonlahor in the right channel, Agbonlahor cleverly used his body to get in front of Gallas and the resulting tackle from behind was always going to yield a penalty in front of the Holte End. Replays show Gallas actually got the ball, but it would have been a tough call for the officials, I certainly thought it was a clear foul on first viewing and Gallas was always running the risk with a desperate lunge. To that point, Gallas had been holding our defence together in the wake of Silvestre's ineptitude and Toure's flapping. Barry smashed the penalty home and it was time to brace ourselves for the alamo. Though the onslaught never really arrived, a few Ashley Young crosses were comfortable dealt with, but with a wealth of inexperience in our midfield, the Gunners were giving the ball away so often it almost seemed intentional. Nerves well and truly had their claws in and we lacked the sang froid to retain the ball and see the game out. As the gamemoved into injury time, the sword of Damacles fell. Reo Coker hit a searching/ desperate cross, Zat Knight trapped it and unleashed a left foot shot from twelve yards which nestled into the corner to rescue a point for the home side. '2-0 and you fucked it up' was the predicatble cry. How true.
In the end, I would have taken a point before the game and judging by the first half, we were lucky to escape with that. But having performed the smash, we didn't have the guts to take the grab. Shorn of Fabregas and then the injured Song, the midfield did not have the requisite composure, though I felt Denilson was a decent springboard for our attacks. van Persie worked incredibly hard but we clearly missed Adebayor as a soundboard to play from, Diaby's moments of brilliance were momentary amongst a sea of half hearted tackles and an appalling lack of anticipation, often rocking on his heels as van Persie manfully offered up some scraps. The couple of times he did get it together to drive forward Villa could not live with him. The defensive frailties are still there for all to see and Toure and Gallascontinue to play like strangers, coupled with a goalkeeper whose decision making is as swift as a woman in a shoe shop. You could say that a point was a decent result without our three best players, but the same old weaknesses are being revealed. Six weeks ago Tottenham clawed us back from a two goal defecit, Liverpool and Middlesbrough both hauled us back within fifteen minutes of us scoring. The truth is, when the heat turns up, we tend to spill the milk all over the kitchen floor. Merry Christmas.LD.